Controversial science: Why bother?

At a time when social media spreads stories like wildfire, it is more important than ever to communicate scientific findings effectively, says Kolabtree’s Ramya Sriram

"Aluminium in vaccines causes autism" and "E-cigarettes linked to a higher risk of stroke", are just two examples of news headlines circulating online, despite contradictory evidence. In an age where information, and misinformation, is so easily spread, why do scientists do such controversial studies in the first place?

Throughout many scientific industries, certain topics divide scientists. The issue at hand may be the interpretation of the data set, how compelling the evidence is or even whether an idea is worth investigating in the first place.

At a time where social media spreads stories like wildfire, it is more important than ever to communicate scientific findings effectively.

Autism, aluminium and vaccines

One topic that has been the subject of much scientific debate is whether the presence of aluminium in pharmaceuticals, like deodorants and vaccines, poses a significant risk to public health.

Numerous articles have emerged voicing concerns that there is a positive correlation between increased human exposure to the element and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, as well as breast cancer and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

Initial fears surrounding the link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism in children were raised in 1998 by former doctor Andrew Wakefield.

However, after significant flaws were discovered in the research, the study was withdrawn and the author struck from the medical register.

Concerns have recently resurfaced and vaccine hesitancy has been listed by the World Health Organization among the ten greatest threats to global health in 2019.

Present findings do not support a causative role of aluminium-containing vaccines in the pathogenesis of autism

With the human body readily exposed to aluminium distributed in the environment, industry and food products, assessing the result of prolonged exposure to low levels of gradually accumulated aluminium is challenging. Present findings, however, do not support a causative role of aluminium-containing vaccines in the pathogenesis of autism, contrary to the strong association suggested by the media.

One researcher on the topic is Professor Chris Exley at the University of Keele, who has published numerous papers linking the two topics. His sources of funding caught media attention in June 2019, as he raised more than £20,000 to support his research using an online donations portal. His sceptics comment about small sample sizes and lack of a control group to dispute his findings.

The implications of vaping

One example of a controversial science topic is popcorn lung, also known as bronchiolitis obliterans. The disease causes scarring of the lungs, loss of function and, in some severe cases, leaves the only remaining treatment option to be a lung transplant. It has gained ample attention in the media, particularly in 2018, due to a claim it is linked with e-cigarette use.

According to the NHS, approximately 2.9 million adults in Great Britain currently use e-cigarettes, 1.5 million of which have completely stopped smoking cigarettes.

The popularity of the battery-powered cartridges can be attributed to their ability to produce a nicotine hit via inhalable vapour without producing tar or carbon monoxide, two of the most harmful elements found in traditional tobacco smoke.

Although the liquid and vapour contain some potentially harmful chemicals also found in cigarette smoke, these are at much lower levels and so it is generally considered to be safer to vape.

Concerns about the connection between popcorn lung and vaping stem from research conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2015. The study found diacetyl in more than 75% of flavoured electronic vapour cigarettes.

As the flavouring chemical is commonly used in processed foods, it is not ingestion of the chemical that was the concern but inhalation.

After the paper on vaping and popcorn lung was published, the news rapidly spread of a supposed link and a fraught debate began.

The link was drawn based on eight cases of lung disease reported in 2002, from employees at a popcorn factory that used diacetyl. Consequently, it was deemed that inhalation of the substance in large quantities can result in irreversible lung damage.

After the paper on vaping and popcorn lung was published, the news rapidly spread of a supposed link and a fraught debate began.

However, the 2015 study did not look at whether there was a link between e-cigarette use and popcorn lung in vapers themselves — only establishing that the fluid contained the chemical. In addition, in 2016 diacetyl was banned in e-cigarette liquid under the EU Tobacco Products Directive, so the paper’s findings are no longer relevant.

As of today, there is no good evidence that e-cigarettes could cause popcorn lung. However, a Public Health England review found that, based on the available evidence, vaping is around 95% less harmful than smoking.

A public health issue

The situation raises some interesting scientific questions on the role of controversial science. Speaking to The Guardian, Paul A Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Centre at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, commented: “If someone raises a hypothesis, for example, a parent is concerned because their child has received an aluminium-containing vaccine and they’re worried it has caused their child developmental delay or an autoimmune syndrome, that’s a fair question to ask. And it’s an answerable question.

“The public health and the academic community respond by answering that question. What matters is the strength and the internal consistency of the study, robustness and reproducibility of the data. Period.”

In essence, scientists have a responsibility to address the general concerns of the public, even if the subject matter is controversial.

Scientists have a responsibility to address the general concerns of the public, even if the subject matter is controversial

That may be why researchers are looking further into the link between vaping and lung disease and the relationship between vaccines and autism, years after the studies that inaugurated the ideas have been disputed or discredited.

What is important then is not the topic, but whether the study has been done robustly. One way to achieve this is to employ scientists and academics who can offer profound knowledge within their discipline and help to combat the wealth of bad science or disinformation online.

Externally sourced specialists, such as a freelance biostatistician, can provide an objective, inter-disciplinary view. Such experts can aid the design of a clinical trial or study, verify statistical analysis or conduct further research.

While it might not always be easy to see behind circulating news headlines, hiring a freelancer has never been easier.

With the UK freelance economy booming, the Kolabtree platform now has over 9,000 freelance scientist experts registered, many of which hold PhDs.

If you are looking for additional expertise for your project, controversial or not, Kolabtree can help.

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